Aurat Azadi March Takes Back the Streets on Women’s Day

ISLAMABAD: Scores of women came together for the Aurat Azadi March on Friday in celebration of the International Women’s Day.

Holding placards, raising slogans and singing feminist songs, the women first gathered outside the National Press Club, Islamabad and then marched around the F-6 markaz, demanding recognition of their physical, mental and emotional labour, and to “heal collectively from the wounds inflicted on us by capitalism, patriarchy, militarism, religious fundamentalism and imperialism,” said Tooba Syed of Women Democratic Front, one of the many organisers of the march.

Other organisers were groups and movements such as the Ending Violence Against Women and Girls (EVAWG) alliance, students, political workers, advocates, filmmakers, musicians, domestic workers, teachers, and health workers. The march was also attended by the Women Action Forum, Progressive Students Federation, representatives from the transgender community, Pakistan Trade Union Defence Campaign, differently-abled people, and the Sindhi Aurat Tanzeem.

Through their slogans and speeches both before and after the march, the participants demanded an end to violence against women; legislation that protects the rights of women and transgender persons; minimum wage and other legal protections for the informal sector; regularization of teachers and health workers; an end to privatization of, and greater investment in health and education, particularly for women; removal of restrictions on student politics and end to curfews in hostels; hostels for women and daycares for the children of working women; construction of low-income housing and an end to the campaign against informal settlements; an end to military operations, return of the missing persons and a political solution to the Balochistan problem. They pointed to the recent murder of Afzal Kohistani, the man who had exposed the 2011 ‘honor killing’ of 5 women for celebrating at a wedding, and demanded that the state arrest his killers, as well as those of all the victims of ‘honor’-related crimes.

Representing EVAWG, Benazir Jatoi said that the Aurat Azadi March builds on the past struggles for women’s rights in Pakistan. “We hope this movement grows and inspires women from across the political, social and economic spectrum to realise that feminist mobilization can have far-reaching impacts, all positive, for not just women, but also men, and our future generations,” she told the crowd.

Other prominent speakers were veteran activist Tahira Abdullah, feminist poet and writer Kishwar Naheed, and classical dancer and teacher, Indu Mitha. They spoke about the need to boldly take back the shrinking physical, political and artistic spaces for women, queer and gender non-binary people. They pointed out that women artists, be they singers, dancers, actors, are censured by society and sometimes even attacked and killed for pursuing their dreams.

The Sindhi Aurat Tanzeem strongly condemned the daily violence against women and called upon the state on implement the laws that would protect women from violence of all kinds, whether domestic, in the workplaces, or in the streets. Naureen Khan, representing differently-abled people, spoke about the lack of provisions for women with disabilities, further marginalizing them and restricting them to their homes. Nayab Ali shed light on the challenges faced by transgender persons and pointed out that laws meant to safeguard their rights have yet to be implemented in letter and spirit.

Women living in katchi abadis raised the issue of low-income housing in Islamabad and described the insecurity under which they raise their families given the state’s lack of commitment to regularization of informal settlements. “We live with the constant fear of having our homes snatched from us to make way for the next big housing project for the rich and losing whatever little stability we have struggled to achieve for our children,” said Kausar Atta who lives in Meherabadi. Pointing to poor investment of resources in low-income housing and public health and education, Kausar raised the question of how the poor can be expected to provide a decent life for their children when the state’s policies are so clearly biased against the working class.

Before the women commenced the march, Mai Dadli Group of female singers from Cholistan sang songs celebrating female solidarity and liberation from oppression.

The placards carried by women, expressing their demands, frustrations and dreams of an equal world, were converted into street art on the route of the march. As dusk fell, a candlelight vigil was held to honor the bravery of those who have always raised their voices for the rights of women and girls, often in the face of threats to their safety, and to remember the stalwarts who are no longer among us but whose spirit continues to lead us on, giants such as Asma Jahangir and Fahmida Riaz.